I am looking for recommendations for novels or short story collections to read during the summer. I enjoy literary fiction that is not lost in redundancies of word or theme; and commercial fiction that is readable and has more than a good story. Skilful crime stories are always welcome and a nice break.
The following are some of the books I recently read and mostly liked. What are you reading and could recommend? A summer without good stories is not summer enough.
One of my all-time favourites: The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Faber and Faber 2008) about an overweight boy from the Dominican Republic living in New Jersey, dreaming about becoming a science-fiction writer and finding true love. The book is as much about Oscar as it is about his mother and sister as well as the plight of the people of the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of the infamous Trujillo. This is a novel with footnotes, of the type you will want to read.
Nadine Godimer has the rare gift of being able to transform everyday simple stories into exceptional studies of character and political setting. I loved My Son’s Story (Penguin Books 1991) about the affair between a black man and a white woman and how it affects his family, and is influenced by their shared fight against apartheid. The House Gun (Bloomsbury 1998) lacks the poetry and intensity of ‘My Son’s Story’ but it is still an absorbing tale about a white middle-class couple in new South Africa—around the time of the abolition of the death penalty—faced with the trial of their son for the murder of his friend.
Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press 2009), is a short book of less than 200 pages for which one must nevertheless take ample time. It is driven by its exquisite language like a clock ticking or a tinsman working, and you will need to immerse yourself into its rhythm to appreciate its beauty and sadness. ‘Tinkers’ are the fragmented memories of a man dying, mourning the loss of his own father seven decades earlier.
Gilead by Marilyn Robinson (Virago 2004) has a similar theme to ‘Tinkers’ but is a very different book. It is a book-diary, its author an old preacher who finds personal happiness late in his life. He will not live to see his young son grow, so his diary is meant as a gift, something for his son to remember him by, and for himself a way to say goodbye. This is a gentle-rocking book, often lacking tension, yet with some wonderful prose.
Mario Vargas Llosa is more of a traditional storyteller and a painter among writers. The Way to Paradise (Knopf 2003, translated by Natasha Wimmer) tells the story of Paul Gauguin and his grandmother Flora Tristan. The chapters alternate: once we are following Paul to French Polynesia in the pursuit of inspiration in primitivism, next we are on the heels of Flora in search of social justice for workers and women in mid-19th century France. Two extraordinary people and a brilliant book
Finally, Out of My Skin by John Haskell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009) is the comic-tragic story of a young man out of job and a bit of a sociophobe, who discovers he can better relax, also with women, if he pretends to talk and walk like Steve Martin. Short book full of popular cultural references that will please Hollywood lovers, written in episodic style and mostly funny.
As for non-fiction, these days this seems to be an ever-expanding field. I will be reviewing some of the new autumn releases for the New York Journal of Books, among else, Eric Hobsbawm’s latest book on Marx, Stephen Pinker’s treatise on why violence is on the decline, and Samantha Power’s tribute to Richard Holbrooke.